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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sauce! Poach!


When one thinks of French sauces, heavy, creamed-based sauces come to mind. And those folks who do think about French sauces (like me), who have cooked, then they probably grimace at the memory of a collapsed Hollandaise sauce or burnt beurre blanc. But not all French sauces are thick, creamy, and heavy (not that there is anything wrong with that—they have their time and place). But there are French sauces that don’t require constant stirring over a Windsor pan, sauces that are light and built upon fresh herbs and vinegar and olive oil—more like dressings than sauces. Two of these—one I’ve been using for several years and one I recently discovered—are Sauce Ravigote and Sauce Vierge.

Generally, sauce ravigotte refers to any vinaigrette with capers, herbs, and red onions. I’m not sure where I discovered this sauce, but it has served me well. It makes a great base for pasta salad, tomato salad, or crudités.  While there are as many different versions of sauce ravigotte as there as Parisian cafés, here’s my version:

Sauce Ravigote

Ingredients

¼ cup pure olive oil
½ cup vegetable oil
2 TBL tarragon vinegar
1 TBL Dijon mustard
1 TBL finely chopped parsley
1 TSP finely chopped thyme
1 TSP finely chopped shallots
1 TSP finely chopped white onion
A few capers
1 TSP kosher salt or 1/2 TSP regular granulated salt
½ TSP freshly cracked black pepper

Directions 

This is very simple: put all ingredients in a 1-pint screw-top jar. Shake well. Nets ¾ cup


Pasta with Sauce Vierge
and some Bacon!
The latest sauce I’ve discovered is Sauce Vierge, which literally means “virgin sauce.” Like Sauce Ravigote, it comes in myriad varieties. The sauce is best if macerated (i.e., let it hang out in the fridge for a while). 
It works very well with seafood (more on that later), and on greens, tomatoes, or even pasta. 



Here’s the version from Eric Ripert that I tried recently:

Ingredients

1 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 teaspoon finely minced shallot
1 tablespoon minced parsley
1 tablespoon minced tarragon
1 tablespoon minced basil
1 tablespoon chopped capers
1 tablespoon chopped Nicoise olives
Juice of half a lemon

Preparation:

Place the extra virgin olive oil in a mixing bowl and add the shallot, parsley, tarragon, basil, capers and olives. Stir to combine the ingredients and transfer to a small container. The sauce can be made a couple hours ahead and kept at room temperature.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. 

A good friend of mine once told me that he almost always orders fish in a fine restaurant because it is the one thing he doesn’t cook at home (and my friend is a good cook!). The reason is that cooking fish is hard. Most fish is delicate and each one cooks differently. One can throw a tuna or swordfish steak on a grill at the beach in the summer with a beer in hand and not really think twice about it. But you would never do that with a Dover sole or a flounder. 

One of the best ways to cook fish, especially delicate fish, is by poaching. Poaching is a method of gently cooking food in a liquid at low temperatures (165-180℉). The liquid can be water, flavored with oil or butter, or stock. Poaching doesn’t impart the strong flavors as does other methods of cooking, such as sauté or roasting. Consequently, poached fish needs a fairly stout sauce to provide the flavor. This is where Sauce Vierge goes comes into play. 

Les filets du turbot pochés
a la sauce vierge aux tomates.
What kind of fish is good for poaching, or more importantly, what kind of fish is bad for poaching? Some fish have muscle enzymes that will make them mushy if they are cooked slowly: flatfish, tuna, mackerel, sardines, and tilapia. A good rule of thumb is that oily fish don’t take to poaching. (Oil and water don’t mix!) Fish that are good for poaching include halibut, turbot, sole, flounder, and salmon.  

Now, I don’t know about you, but I sucked at high school chemistry. The only way I got through it was that my lab partner was the salutatorian of my high school. God bless her! If you use butter or olive oil in your poaching water, then you should add an acid such as wine or lemon juice to balance the Ph. Without the acid, the butter or oil (an alkali) will turn the fish into an unappetizing yellowish or off-white color. 

Now, let’s put all this science to good use….

Going back to Ripert’s recipe, here’s how to poach fish for the Sauce Vierge (he used halibut; I used turbot, which is quite similar):

Place a large sauté pan on medium-low heat and add the water, the extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice, lightly season the liquid with salt and white pepper. Season the slices of halibut on both sides with salt and white pepper and place in a single layer in the warmed poaching liquid. The liquid should come about halfway up the fish, adjust if needed with more. Cook the fish for about 2-3 minutes, then flip the slices and cook on the other side until they are just warmed in the center.

One final note about poaching:  it doesn’t generate a lot of mess—no greasy pans or pots to soak or scrub, which for me is great because I’m notorious for tearing up a kitchen when I cook.

Bon appétit!


Sunday, August 25, 2013

Are Parisian Waiters Rude?

Here's an interesting article from the New York Times about the never-ending debate about whether French waiters are rude. Apparently, the French think they might be and are making efforts to make them more "friendly." I didn't find them to be rude at all; I just think most Americans don't get the French or don't appreciate their culture. I certainly don't want French waiters to start wearing stripped shirts with a lot of flair, telling me that that they will "be assisting me tonight" or trying to up-sell me on the latest "jalapeño pepper popper appetizer" (inanely referred to as an "app").  

And that's the difference, French waiters (they are almost all male, so I will avoid being PC and not use the term "server"), display a certain sang froid, that most Americans translate as rude. Well, here's the article. You be the judge. By the way, one of my favorite lines in Ratatouille occurs when Colette is trying to cut the press conference short and says, "We hate to be rude, but we are French!"

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/21/world/europe/can-the-gruff-frenchman-become-the-gracious-frenchman.html?ref=dining&_r=0

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Inn at Little Washington


Recently, I had the pleasure of eating at The Inn at Little Washington, one of America’s great restaurants and a destination that should be stamped in every serious foodie’s passport. 

The view from the road on the way to The Inn.
The Inn at Little Washington is located in Washington, Rappahannock County, Virginia, about an hour and a half west of Washington D.C., and nestled in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

Patrick O'Connell, the owner and chef is a self-taught cook who learned by doing and reading cookbooks—lots of cookbooks.  He opened the Inn in a former garage in 1978, and his star has risen ever since. He and his restaurant have won about every food and cooking award offered in this Country. He has even cooked for the Queen. 

We ate in the kitchen, something I have never done outside of my own kitchen, which of course doesn’t really count, not by a long shot. Again, this is not just any kitchen, especially in terms of scale and beauty. It is huge! And if the kitchen were a character, it would be one of Lord Grantham’s cousins on Downton Abbey. Our table was next to a massive gothic hearth that would look at home in one of Henry VIII’s castles. This makes sense as the kitchen is apparently modeled after the Dairy Room in Windsor Castle and the large copper and bronze hood (handmade in France) is made to resemble King Arthur’s joisting tent. Our table offered a commanding view of the kitchen and the preparation of the fabulous meal we were about to enjoy. 

video

Perhaps from watching too many shows like Chopped on the Food Network or from reading too much Anthony Bourdain, I expected, or rather anticipated, the kitchen to be a simmering cauldron of chaos, with pots clanging and cooks yelling at each other, while scrambling around like rabbits. To my surprise, the kitchen was quiet, quiet enough in fact to hear the Gregorian chants that O’Connell plays over speakers. Everyone went about their tasks with a quiet but focused determination. 

Food was placed in containers that were clearly marked and if there were any dirty pots or pans, they must have been magic and invisible because I didn’t see any. The kitchen seemed to be an extension of O’Connell’s personality: calm, gracious, and competent. His is completely in control of his kitchen and his food.

Eggplant from the garden.
From the beginning, O’Connell has worked with local farmers and purveyors—farm-to-table before anyone knew what that meant. He now has a small working vegetable garden that supplies the restaurant with most of its vegetables—tomatoes, peppers, peas, beans, eggplant, herbs, potatoes, and lettuces. Guests can stroll through the garden and, if no one is looking, snag a fresh, golden cherry tomato. (Not that I would do anything like that….)

O’Connell is a former drama student, and he puts those skills to good use. O’Connell has been called the “Pope of American Cuisine,” a title that O’Connell has taken to heart while at the same time poking good-natured fun at it. For example, when the door to the kitchen is ceremoniously opened, you are introduced by a member of the staff dressed as an acolyte waiving a chained thurible, with O'Connell standing behind him along with the kitchen staff in their chef’s whites (which are actually dark blue) lined up at attention. 

Inscribed within the ornate crown moldings in the kitchen are five words that O’Connell says are a tongue-in-cheek homage to Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s, The Five Stages of Grief. They are: anticipation, trepidation, inspection, fulfillment, and evaluation. It was explained to us that anticipation is how one feels upon arriving at this storied restaurant. Then there is the trepidation as to whether it will live up to one's expectations. Then, inspection as one examines and tastes the beautifully prepared food. Fulfillment as it meets, and then exceeds, one's expectation. And finally, evaluation or the downloading of memories of what was truly a great meal.

While traveling on the crowded road of modern American food culture, with its hairpin turns and exits ending in cul-de-sacs of failed expectations, it is comforting to know that one can find a place like The Inn. A place where disciplined creativity combines with attentive but relaxed and gracious service, where one can enjoy food with all five senses fully engaged.

Well, enough of such nacreous prose, most of you probably want to know what we ate! And here it is! The Gastronaut’s Menu, a ten-course tasting menu with wine pairings: 



Black Truffle Dusted Popcorn


A "shot" of tomato-orange  bisque


A Tin of Sin: American Osetra Caviar
with Peekytoe Crab and Cucumber Rillette
Jaen-Pierre Legret, Blanc de Blanc, Cuvée Spéciale, Talus-Saint-Prix,
Champagne, France (N.V.)


Chilled Mane Lobster with Tomato Water Gazpacho Gelée
Kiralyudvar, Tokaji Furmint Sec, Hegyalja Hungary (2011)



Seared New England Day Boat Scallop

with a Mélange of Summer Vegetables and Creamy Garlic Grits
Viñeos de Ithaca, Garnatxa Blanca, Odysseuys, Priorat, Spain (2011)


Seared Antarctic Sea Bass in an Asian Inspired Broth Perfumed with Ginger
Marie Barnard, En Virondots, Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru, Burgundy, France (2009)

Obviously this is not a pheasant.
It is actually a Thanksgiving Day
turkey from a few years back.
I forgot to take a picture of this course!

Breast of Pheasant with Sweet Corn Pudding, Succotash and Virginia Mushrooms
Dusky Goose, Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon (2006)



Barbecued Jamison Farms Lamb
with Miniature Grilled Vegetables and Harissa Hollandaise
Shane Wine Cellars Sarah, Valenti Ranch, Anderson Valley, California (2009)


Pineapple Lemongrass Sorbet with Pink Peppercorn Granita


Bitter Chocolate Marquise “Taillevent” with Pistachio Ice Cream
Blandy’s, Island Bottled Malmsey, Madeira, Portugal


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Barbecue


“Southern barbecue is the closet thing we have in the U.S. to Europe’s wine or cheeses; drive a hundred miles and the barbecue changes.” 

     —John Shelton Reed  

©2013 Chris Terrell
Nothing establishes the culinary diversity of the South more than barbecue. Every region of the South—from the South Carolina Low Country to the mountains of Tennessee—has its own unique take on this delectable food. Southerners fight and argue over barbecue almost as much as they do about anything else, except maybe religion, politics, and football. Hell, most Southerners cannot even agree on the spelling. You will see BBQ, Bar-B-Que, barbecue, or barbecue! (My father, being an English major, was particularly offended by BBQ or Bar-B-Que.)

Barbecue begins with the Spanish conquest of the New World. When Spanish explorers moved into the Caribbean, they discovered native islanders roasting fish and game on a framework of sticks they called “barbacoa.” The word “barbecue,” which first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary around 1661, initially referred to such a framework and only later did the word “barbecue” come to mean the act of grilling or roasting meat on dry heat.  

The surest way in which to tell the difference between a Southerner and a Yankee is how the word barbecue is used. Up North, “barbecue” is a verb, as in “let’s go barbecue some chicken on the grill.” In the South, however, it’s a noun, as in “let’s go get us some barbecue after church… .” See the difference? 

In the South, the differences between regional barbecues can be found mostly in the sauce, and to a lesser extent the type of meat used. The barbecue of Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee is almost always served with a sweet tomato-based sauce. The sauce in South Carolina is mustard-based. And the sauce of Eastern North Carolina is the simplest—a concoction consisting of only vinegar and spices. Nary a tomato to be found! Alabama is also known for its distinctive white sauce made of mayonnaise and vinegar and originating in northern Alabama. It is used predominantly on chicken. 

Most of the South uses pork as the meat-base for barbecue.  Texas, however, relies heavily on beef brisket, though you can find barbecue made with sausage or goat, because of Texas’s German and Mexican heritage. And in Western Kentucky, mutton predominates. A popular item in North Carolina and Memphis is the pulled-pork sandwich served on a bun and often topped with coleslaw. Pulled pork is prepared by shredding the pork after it has been barbecued.

Of all the various permutations of barbecue sauce I've tasted, the best will always be that of Eastern North Carolina. And for me, the perfect embodiment of this style of barbecue was “Midgett’s Barbecue” on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This was my first real introduction to barbecue; the best I will ever eat. Let’s start first with the name. It had nothing to do with the size of the people preparing the pig. It is an old family name. The Midgetts have lived on the Outer Banks for many, many years. (Many of them have served honorably in the Coast Guard rescuing folks from the stormy Atlantic coast.)

This place was not fancy. It was small. There was a front area with about six tables. And the place was decorated with “pig” bric-a-brac (piggy banks, pig clocks, paintings of pigs, etc.) In the back was a counter, behind which lay, in all its glory, a whole hog. Someone would take your order and Mrs. Midget would then take her cleaver and furiously begin to produce BBQ. Though she would never win a Miss Congeniality contest and the sanitary rating hovered between a C- and C+, we didn’t care. The ‘cue was divine. Since moving to Georgia and later Alabama, I’ve been on a one-man mission to convince my Deep South brethren that there ain’t really nothing like Eastern North Carolina barbecue nowhere! Don’t get me wrong, Alabama has some great barbecue. My favorites here in Birmingham are: Saw’s Soul Kitchen, Johnny Ray’s (closest thing we have to N.C.-style), Dreamland (for the ribs), and Full Moon. 

How does one determine whether a barbecue joint is legit? First, look at the name. Is it a family name? Most reputable barbecue joints are family-run affairs. (Because of the time it takes to make good barbecue, you don’t see a lot of chains—mass production just will not work.) What does the building look like? Is it a small, simple cinderblock building on the side of a winding country road just outside of a small town, next to a video/tanning-booth-store or a Piggly Wiggly? Also, are the tablecloths (if there are any) red-and-white checkered? And there should be at least some pig-related bric-a-brac or a pig on the sign! 

The menu should not be complicated. (For years, Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, served nothing but ribs and white bread.) The sides should be straightforward: coleslaw (some of us actually put this on the sandwich!), baked beans, Brunswick stew, sometimes french fries or potato salad. Drinks will be Coke (this refers to all matter of soft drinks or “soda”) and, of course, sweet tea. Dessert will usually consist of banana pudding—maybe even pecan pie if it is a fancy barbecue “restaurant.”

Finally, a good indication of the quality of the barbecue served is the diversity of the clientele. Despite the South’s ugly past, barbecue joints and their cousins, the “meat and three,” are some of the most socially egalitarian eateries on the planet. You will find bankers and lawyers sitting next to construction workers and truck drivers. Whites will be sitting next to Blacks and Hispanics. They are all drawn to the same love: barbecue. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Pasta Salad


One of my readers requested that I put more recipes on my blog. Good point. After all, this is a blog about food, and I admit that perhaps I have posted a bit too many reminisces lately. I have also realized that I need to start documenting the dishes I make. Of course, many recipes exist only in the mind of the cook, but that doesn’t do the rest of us much good. So here’s the “recipe” for a pasta salad I made today. This is probably not the first dish I would formalize into a written recipe, but it is the first one I remembered to do so. And keep in mind that this so-called recipe may be revised in the future. And also, please feel free to critique and provide suggestions to improve upon it. 


OK, I slipped in a little penne regate.
Mediterranean Pasta Salad (this is a made-up name!)

Serves 6-8

Ingredients

1 pint of grape or cherry tomatoes
1 lb. of fusilli pasta
5 oz. or little more than a cup of Kalamata olives 
(pitted--why do recipes always make this point?!)
½ Cup of good extra virgin olive oil (as opposed to crappy)
3½ tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon flat-leaf Italian parsley
6 oz. of feta cheese
2 garlic cloves
salt and pepper to taste

Preparation

Boil salted water (easiest part!)
Place pasta in boiling salted water

Whilst the water boils:

Slice the grape/cherry tomatoes into quarters
Slice the olives half-wise
Mince the garlic
Chop the parsley

To prepare the dressing, emulsify the olive oil and the vinegar, then add mustard, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper and whisk like hell until you get a good thick dressing

After the pasta has cooled, place in a big bowl and add the tomatoes, olives, feta, and dressing and mix.

Season to taste.

Place in the fridge and let the flavors meld for a good 2-3 hours.

Eat

Note: You may want to consider adding some fresh basil. I've not tired it yet, but I will revise this recipe if it works out.